Not everyone that goes into military service gets to be John Wayne, impossibly carrying a 50-caliber machine gun on his back while climbing a near vertical hill to destroy an enemy outpost. Most soldiers have behind-the-scenes jobs that go unnoticed but are necessary in order for that military branch to function. David Dampier, 81, a De Queen resident for the last 27 years, is one of those guys.
“I wasn’t no hero…not like the poor guys in Nam,” Dampier said about his service in Korea in the early 1960s.
Dampier was 21 years old when he was drafted into the army in 1961, a time when the Berlin Wall had just been completed. He did his boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., then was assigned to an engineer battalion at Ft. Benning, Ga. While most troops get an extra eight weeks of training out of boot camp, Dampier and a handful of others got papers to go to Korea.
“The Korean war was over and it was stable except for a shot across the border every now and then,” Dampier said, describing the situation in Korea at the time.
After a long ship ride across the Pacific, sleeping in a canvas bunk and bored from not having any job duties, Dampier arrived in Korea and was assigned to the 13th Engineer Headquarters Company, which was a repair and utilities attachment. The group had different sectors within it that provided wood workers, welders, heavy equipment operators and handymen that did everything from building roads and bridges to fixing the heat and plumbing in the buildings on base and filling the vehicles with gas and maintenance lubricants.
“We made the trucks and everything run,” Dampier said.
Combat engineers provided security, building fences and other perimeter barriers that secured the facilities on base and a supply dump on the other side of the compound kept the engineers flush in materials such as lumber and other things needed to develop and build.
“The companies would call us and tell us the hot water heater was out or the roof was leaking,” Dampier said. He would then write up the work order and see to it the necessary supplies were released to them.
Less than 30 miles form the Demarcation Line, life on the base in Changemal was passive for the most part, though there were restrictions such as not being allowed to take pictures. Every now and again there would be exercises but most everyone, like Dampier, didn’t carry a weapon on base. One day though, the whistle did blow, everyone was lined up in formation and handed a rifle and ammunition. No one knew what was going and no one was telling, but thousands of miles away south of Florida, the U.S. had blockaded Cuba and tensions with the Russians was peaking.
“I looked up and there’s a major and general running around the post,” Dampier said, describing the situation. “They finally told us, though the Koreans working on the base already knew. We would have practice alerts now and then but that was real and we were ready to go to war.”
Probably the closest to a battlefield situation Dampier came face to face with, was when a major in charge of an ordnance company came to Dampier’s division and said he wanted someone dependable to drive his Jeep.
“He needed someone dependable or expendable,” Dampier said.
Dampier was handed a carbine, a tiny weapon compared to the automatic weapons the battle troops were given.
“The joke was how many guys does it take to kill a Korean with a carbine,” Dampier said. “Two to hold him down and one to shoot him in the ear.”
The major packed a .45 and shared crackers and a Thermos of hot coffee with Dampier as they rode toward the demilitarized zone. Near the Parallel, Dampier saw empty watchtowers for as far as he could see and he asked the major, “What the Hell are we doing here, sir?”
After some searching, the major located a manhole cover, which the major removed. He put a shaft into a slot and then turned the handle. According to Dampier, something somewhere was blown up by the major’s actions, but he was never told what, where.
He said that there was an ordnance division close to his base and that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a convoy of trucks 45 minutes long, carrying Honest John missiles that could deliver a warhead, passed the base on their way to the demilitarized zone.
“We were not supposed to have atomic warheads there but we did,” he said. “That’s not official.”
He said that he had never seen the missiles before and figured they had been stored underground.
While the army was meticulous in documenting the inventory stored on the base for the use of the company engineers, sometimes exceptions to the rules were made and the upper levels of military management looked the other way, like the time legendary comedian Bob Hope brought his USO show to the base.
“This is the way government works,” Dampier said. “They wanted to build him a stage and perimeter security around it but under Army rules, we could not build the stage and barbed wire security.”
What happened was that all of the companies involved in building the stage and perimeter provided phony work orders, which were approved by Dampier and the upper level staff in the office.
“They all came across my desk,” Dampier said. “We approved them then they got the material from our supply yard. It’s so damn goofy if you think about it.”
The show went on but Dampier was unable to attend it, volunteering instead to answer the phones while the upper brass that was required to man the phone lines, enjoyed the performance.
“I had two stripes,” he said, noting that he was along while a staff sergeant or other officer was required to be there.
Dampier served two years in the army, a little over a year and a half in Korea. He was able to visit Seoul once on a two-day pass, where he drank beer and visited the sites, which he enjoyed having been stationed “in the sticks” with just a gravel road and rice paddy next door where he’d watch the farmer plow his field with a water buffalo.
Near the end of his enlistment, an army recruiter visited the base, promising increases in rank and pay if the soldiers would re-enlist and train to work maintaining and flying helicopters. Dampier said that an old sergeant on base warned the troops that the Vietnam war was beginning to escalate and that they would be getting them ready for war. Dampier didn’t bite and soon he was on a ship heading back to the states. He said he’ll never forget how he felt the day he was called to the deck of the ship and saw San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
“We went under that bridge and I said I’m never leaving the U.S. ever again — and I never did,” he said. “I don’t care if they gave me a trip to the Bahamas, I never left.”
Thinking his enlistment had ended upon his arrival home, Dampier was shocked to learn that he still owed the army four more years in the National Guard, where he had to report for a meeting every Saturday and would have to spend a weekend training once a month. Once a year he would be sent to Mississippi for additional training. During this time he worked for Chrysler in Indianapolis, Ind., same as where he worked prior to his enlistment. After 10 years working in the auto industry, Dampier tired of the pollutants and carcinogens that were a part of factory life and went to work in shipping and receiving, similar to his army duties.
“It didn’t have that much effect on my life,” Dampier said about his military service. “I just went back to to work. I wasn’t in combat and had no stress. I just got a job, went to work and got my life back together.”
After year of working, Dampier finally retired. Sixteen years ago, at age 65, weighing in at 210 pounds, he was walking out of Walmart on a hot day and found himself huffing and puffing while walking up a small incline in the parking lot. His wife was working out at the Better Body gym and so he decided to join as well.
“He walked on the treadmill for one minute and left,” said Mike Atkins, proprietor of the gym. “He came back two weeks later, walked five minutes and signed up.”
Dampier walks a mile a day now, six days a week, and also works out with light weights, upper body one day and lower body the next. At 5’11”, his weight is now down to 169.
“I got to know Mike and the people down here,” he said about his experience at the gym. “Mike’s a good motivator. I feel good and I’m not the man I was 15 years ago, Actually, I feel better.”
He feels good about his military service as well. “I did what I had to do, we all did.”